William Hamilton

Courage can be contagious

“You are not going to be forcibly taken from this place” a Bulgarian Priest insisted when he spoke to several hundred young children who had been rounded up for deportation. “And if they do try and take you from here, I shall be walking alongside you every step of the way.” Four hours later the gates of the heavily guarded plaza where the children had been detained were opened.  An announcement was made.  “You are all liberated.  You may return to your homes.”  The religious and regional leadership had said “No” to the Nazis order to deport their Jews.  From that day in 1943 until the end of the war, there was never another demand for Bulgaria’s Jews. 

What Bulgaria’s leadership did took tremendous courage.  It was clearly situational.  Rejecting a Nazi order was not possible in the overwhelming majority of times and places. Yet the courage to say ‘no’ is one of the legacies of Bulgarian leadership during the Holocaust.

Courage can be contagious.  When we witness it or hear stories about it, we can more readily act on it ourselves. 

This week’s portion of Torah details the drama that will lead to liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt.  A curious detail amidst the back and forth between Moses and Pharaoh points to what makes empowering courage situational.  Pharaoh agrees at one point to permit the Hebrews to offer a sacrifice to their God within the land of Egypt (Ex. 8:21).  But Moses does not follow through on Pharaoh’s directive because Israel’s sacrificial rite would be considered offensive by the Egyptians. “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to the Lord our God is abomination to the Egyptians” (Ex. 8:22).   Yet the Children of Israel do indeed offer a sacrifice, the Pascal offering, within Egypt which provides for the doorpost blood and seder meal in next week’s portion of Torah.  What changed?  The situation.  The time for liberation had arrived.  Also, personal involvement.  Each and every Hebrew home participated in bringing the Pascal sacrifice.  It was vivid.  It was not vicarious.

As we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King this weekend, we appreciate a timely reminder of situational courage. “Courage breeds creativity” King said, “cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.  And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”  May we embrace situations in our lives that call for courage.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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